I’ve been away from the blog for quite some time, unexpectedly, but with very good reason. I’m pregnant! I had really bad ‘morning’ sickness for several weeks, so bad that lots of days I could barely get out of bed. I’m finally feeling better, and finally getting the house back in order. (With a huge thanks to my husband who kept things going while I was down. I’m so thankful for God’s timing so that he could be working from home while I was so sick!)
So I’m still re-reading, highlighting and making notes on Perelandra. Today I read the first real conversation between Ransom and Tinidril. In reading it, I remembered that some have used her as a reason to criticize Lewis’s treatment of women – as in, they see her as a simpleton, foolish and ignorant, constantly asking questions, which they sometimes read as seeking male guidance. But as I read this passage, I see something quite different.
Part of the reason people see her as ignorant is that she has no fear of asking questions. She has no shame in not knowing something, not understanding a word or phrase used by Ransom. In contrast, I see this as a strength. It’s partly because of her innocence, yes. No one has ever made fun of her or humiliated her or looked down on her for not knowing something. There is no one in her world sinful enough to do such a thing. So asking questions isn’t, for her, something shameful or childish, but something any reasonable person would do if they want to learn something. I also see it as part of her maturity in having open hands. She trusts God – Maleldil – that either Ransom or he will answer her questions truthfully, allowing her to learn and continue to mature. She also, it seems to me, trusts the reasoning ability given her by Maleldil to discern the truth or falsity of what Ransom says – and she does so even more when Ransom and the Un-man disagree later in the book. Rather than being a sign of her childishness, her questions point to her maturity. In fact, at one point in the conversation, she is so thrilled to learn something new that she claps her hands and smiles, and Lewis points out that in our world we only see that kind of smile on children, but ‘there was nothing of the child about it there.’ It is part of her maturity that she doesn’t have to hide her feelings, as her self-worth isn’t determined by her level of knowledge. She is comfortable with who she is and need not hide either her knowledge or her ignorance. I’m rather jealous of that ability, honestly, as in our fallen world we do experience shame in ignorance and either pride in our knowledge or a desire to hide it because it seems advantageous in certain circumstances (especially as a woman). It is also important to note that the areas in which she is ignorant are areas in which she has until now had no reason to become knowledgeable. Maleldil orchestrated Ransom’s coming for her growth as well as his. But she is not ignorant in anything which it has thus far been important, or even reasonable, for her to be knowledgeable.
Another indication of the fact that she is at least on a level with Ransom intellectually in this scene is that when he provides new information, she doesn’t simply accept it at face value, or replace her perspective with his, but she considers it – she acknowledges when she learns something new, she questions him when he’s wrong, and at times she sees how both perspectives could be true in different ways.
As an example of the first – recognizing her ignorance and learning something new – on her first meeting with Ransom she laughs at him, because he’s half red and half white – piebald. By the next morning, when this conversation takes place, Maleldil has revealed to her that Ransom’s people don’t like to be laughed at. She had no intention of being discourteous, and she acknowledges her ignorance as a way to establish good will upon first meeting him.
In contrast, when he objects that earth is too small a planet to be the corner, the hinge on which all future creation turns, she says, ‘I do not understand. Corner with us is not the name of a size.’ The implication is that the importance of something has nothing to do with its size – an idea that Lewis treats as true and puts significant emphasis on in the final scene on Perelandra. She gives him a chance to explain his perspective, in case she is lacking knowledge in this area, but as he does not we are left to assume her way of looking at it is superior. And then Lewis confirms this at the end of the book.
An example of her final response, recognizing truth in two ways of looking at an idea, comes when Ransom is confused by her assertion that she is older, her way of articulating that she has learned and grown, which to her has nothing to do with literal time. I’ll quote this bit of the conversation in full. Ransom speaks first.
“But you are very little older than yesterday.”
“How do you know that?”
“I mean,” said Ransom, “a night is not a very long time.”
She thought again, and then spoke suddenly, her face lightening. “I see it now,” she said. “You think times have lengths. A night is always a night whatever you do in it, as from this tree to that is always so many paces whether you take them quickly or slowly. I suppose that is true in a way. But the waves do not always come at equal distances. I see that you come from a wise world . . . if this is wise. I have never done it before—stepping out of life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?”
I love the way here that she recognizes that both ways of looking at time – time counted in minutes or hours versus time counted in experiences or growth – as having value, and is willing to leave it at that. She takes his perspective, compares it with her own, finds value in both, and leaves the question of the wisdom of both views open. Then she moves on to a wider view of their conversation that interests her. Perhaps as a way of acknowledging the wisdom of her view (though perhaps merely using her terminology so she will understand), Ransom also adopts this way of speaking at times.
She does what any intelligent, reasoning person does when faced with new ideas – compares them to her own knowledge and experience, recognizing that some are inferior to her current knowledge, some are superior, and some are on equal footing.
At the end of their conversation there’s even some indication that she learns less than he. First, in response to her understanding that the Malacandran kinds – intelligent animal-like beings – will not be made again, he says, ‘I have no more understanding than a beast.’ He recognizes her superior understanding in this matter. Soon after, Lewis writes that Ransom ‘had had enough.’ That is, he had had enough conversation and needed time to process what he had learned. He promptly fell asleep and slept until full daylight, so the conversation had exhausted him. When he woke, it was with a sense of insecurity. This seems to indicate that what he had learned had unsettled him, in a way that the conversation hadn’t unsettled her. Both had asked questions, both had learned – but what he had learned had exhausted and unsettled him. The text even indicates that he had matured in the course of the conversation, as he wouldn’t have been able to admit ‘bluntly’ that he was tired of talking ‘even an hour ago’. He is learning this ability to be straightforward, and to acknowledge weakness, from her.
So, far from creating a childish, ignorant, unreasoning feminine character in Tinidril, Lewis created a woman who intelligently considered new information, connecting it to what she already knew, and using sound reasoning to choose whether to accept or reject what she was told. I can see why it is easy to see her as ignorant, because she is the opposite of worldly wise – she is innocent. And in our fallen world, innocence is a childish trait, because experience teaches us to hide our emotions, that to ask questions is to lose face, to admit to a lack of knowledge is shameful. She has none of that baggage. Her knowledge and intelligence has a different quality than ours. She is free to be mature and intelligent and to ask questions without shame. And that’s exactly as Lewis wanted her to be.
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